The Little Cemetery That Was in Leif Ericson Park

Bay Ridge Methodist Cemetery
The Methodist cemetery on an 1898 map (detail), shortly before it was moved. From the New York Public Library

In 1831, Grace Methodist Episcopal built its first church in Bay Ridge—on Couwenhoven Lane (close to today’s 67th Street), near Sixth Avenue, quite close to where the First Evangelical Free Church is today. “The building was burned to the ground some years later in a mysterious manner,” the Eagle reported in 1900. “The old residents in the former town of New Utrecht say to this day that the church was set on fire by some of its enemies.”

More likely is Charlotte Bangs’s version. “Three boys from Brooklyn, wandering about, broke into the church and set fire to it,” Rev. B.F. Kidder writes in Bangs’s Reminiscences of Old New Utrecht and Gowanus. “Two of them served terms in the State’s prison for the offense.”

Bay Ridge Methodist Church on old map
The church on Stewart Avenue, at 76th Street. (The pink line running along the top is Stewart Avenue.) Detail of map, 1898, From the New York Public Library

So the congregation built a new church “on what is now called Stewart Avenue, near a famous old pond,” according to the Eagle, at 76th Street, on land donated by Simon Denyse. (Stewart Avenue here cut diagonally from 66th and Seventh to 85th and Fifth; only a small leg of it remains. The pond is long gone and forgotten.) What they didn’t take with them was the neighboring cemetery, which stayed where it was—Sixth Avenue, between 66th and 67th streets.

Bay Ridge Methodist Cemetery
“CEM.” for cemetery. 1873 map (detail).

Cemeteries can be pesky things for developers, public or private. Prospect Park, for example, was built around a private Quaker cemetery, which still exists. Many families and churches in old rural Bay Ridge would have had their own burial grounds, but most were either exhumed or forgotten and then built over. When the army bought the old Cortelyou property and expanded the footprint of Fort Hamilton, “some human bones were discovered and the find announced, but nothing remained to tell a single item about whose bodies the bones represented[,] and as the United States Government was in no mood for halting work of Defence [sic] lines for its big Fort, the little family cemetery was wiped out of existence,” Bangs writes. A similar fate befell the Couwenhoven cemetery, though it persisted longer than most—to 1901—probably because it was a little larger than most, with more than 200 graves. (Part of the Barkaloo’s family plot survives, on the corner of Narrows and Mackay Place; it’s the only graveyard in Bay Ridge.)

The cemetery happened to be smack in the middle of both the planned route of Sixth Avenue and the “Bay Ridge Parkway,” not 75th Street but a grand network of greenspaces from Fort Hamilton Parkway to Shore Road to the Fort Hamilton armybase; today we know it as separate parks, such as Leif Ericson, which offers openspace in the spot where the Couwenhoven graves were.

Sixth Avenue Leif Ericson Park
In the 19th century, this land was cemetery. Via Google

“Historic Burying Ground in Bay Ridge Must Make Way for City’s March,” according to a subhed in the Eagle on June 21, 1901. “The bones of the departed Bay Ridge residents that have for nearly a century reposed in a little graveyard, long since unused…are to be disturbed, because the cemetery has become city property,” the article explained. The remains were to be moved to a vault “beside the beautiful little Grace M. E. Church, on the corner of Ovington and Fourth avenues…in front of the old church edifice in which many of the departed ones in years gone by worshipped.”

Bay Ridge Methodist Church
Not quite how it turned out. Via Brooklyn Eagle, June 1900

This would be what many Bay Ridge residents remember as “the Green Church.” The Methodist congregation replaced its Stewart Avenue church—the one near the famous pond—in 1875, on the Ovington Avenue land the Green Church would also occupy when it opened in 1900; the old building was then used as the Sunday school. (The church bought the land from Ovington Village, an artists colony.)

Fourth Avenue changed drastically over the next 107 years. In the 1890s, it “had few houses on it and was just one vacant lot after another,” Grace A. Glen writes in her 1962 pamphlet memoir, Old Bay Ridge, “but it was lined with magnificent old willow trees which were destroyed when the subway came.” The Fourth Avenue subway (aka the R train) opened in 1916, bringing in hordes of new residents; the old houses were razed and replaced with apartment buildings. What was a sleepy country road transformed into a bustling urban raceway. And as its character changed, so did that of its residents, so that though the population had increased, the area was no longer home to enough moneyed Methodists to keep up the building. In 1912, Bangs writes the church had 500 or 600 members, and the Sunday school class almost twice that; in 2008, the Post reported there were 40. Those 40 decided to sell.

Fourth Avenue by Otto Heinigke
“Fourth Avenue,” by Otto Heinigke, 1880. Believed to be approximately 74th Street. Via Child’s Gallery

The dead from the old Couwenhoven cemetery then found no rest at the Ovington church, either. Preservationists fought to save the church but failed. The bodies were again moved.

In 1901, “[t]he present generation did not desire the bones of their ancestors scattered to the four winds of heaven,” according to one contemporary newspaper account, reported in 2007 by the Brooklyn Paper. “At that time, community members were invited to watch as workers sifted the dirt ‘to make sure that not a single bone was left behind,’ said the church’s then-Pastor W.L. Davidson.”

Methodist Remains Vault
The old vault beside the church on Ovington. Via Brooklyn Paper

This time, the intense coverage of the issue soured the reverend’s relationship with the media, and it was done in secret. According to the blog Left in Bay Ridge:

Pastor Robert Emerick once said, “We are a competent religious organization, and we know how to handle human remains.”

And look at how they’re handling it. They put up a garbage bag wall so no one can see how well they’re handling the human remains. I climbed a ladder to see this: a back-ho and some guy looking in a hole. Very very holy. Remind me not to have them handle my remains.

On the other side of the church was a man, who I think said he was a retired head of the NY Cemetery Regulation. He was there to make sure the bodies “found a final resting spot. They deserve that.” Um — this is the 3rd time they’ve been moved. How many times does a dead body have to be moved before it reaches its final resting spot?

Exhuming the Bay Ridge Methodists
Exhuming the remains. Via Left in Bay Ridge

The New York Post made a few Poltergeist jokes when it reported, “A Brooklyn church yesterday cleared out the remains of 211 corpses that had been buried for more than a century in an adjacent crypt to help pave the way for a controversial luxury condo complex.”

“It’s like rape” in the “name of greed,” said, Kathleen Walker, who heads a committee fighting to save the church from bulldozers.

“I wouldn’t buy a condo there; who would want to live above an ex-crypt?”

The unidentified remains of the 211 early members of the church’s congregation were moved to Cypress Hills Cemetery…

“It’s a sad day for all those ancestors of the church, whose bodies were at rest, to now have to be uprooted, disturbing their eternal peace in the name of residential development,” said [local councilmember Vincent] Gentile, who is still attempting to find an alternate buyer who would preserve the church structure.

Grace Methodist Church in Bay Ridge
The church on Ovington Avenue, ca. 1908. Via eBay

Gentile did—the city bought the land and built a school, whose architects designed it to evoke the shape of the old church, including green stone and a prominent corner clock tower—but no old bones. (You have to go down to Xaverian for that.) The congregation will construct a new, smaller church behind the school, on a lot they kept; it’ll be their fifth house in almost 200 years.

New Grace Church Bay Ridge
Artist’s rendering of the new Ovington Avenue church

As for Couwenhoven Lane, that “old Colonial thoroughfare,” most of its length in Bay Ridge was renamed Senator Street (after State Senator Henry C. Murphy, owner of the Owl’s Head estate). Then it veered off northeasterly, continuing well into Borough Park at a boldly grid-defying angle. The last irregular leg of its Bay Ridge route was closed in 1908 or 1909. It ran a short distance from Fifth Avenue to about two-thirds of the way up 67th Street. (The rest overlapped with the Bay Ridge Parkway.) Officials adopted a resolution to close it in 1907, but there was a brief campaign to protect it.

“The block is a little irregular in shape, and somewhat larger in superficial area than most of those in the Bay Ridge section,” the Eagle reported in 1908. “[I]t is of the same dimensions as it was before the Revolution.”

The families who owned land along it here wanted it closed, and got the support of the local alderman (similar to a present-day city councilmember). One stood to gain a whopping sixteen feet of land from the move. Their opponents wanted instead to widen the block and also rename it Senator Street. But these resolutions were voted down on December 10, 1908, and this curious little leg of Couwenhoven Lane was presumably closed not long after.

A little piece of it survives: that driveway next to the Leif on Fifth Avenue is right where Couwenhoven Lane would have started on its crooked journey to 67th Street—and the little Methodist cemetery beyond.

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The Leif and Cowenhoven Lane
The driveway next to the Leif, likely a vestige of Cowenhoven Lane. Via Google